El Jefe

Horsing Around

How the Miami Herald screwed up its Kentucky Derby coverage

By now, most sports fans know that the Miami Herald on May 10 published an apparent blockbuster questioning the integrity of the nation's premier equine event, the Kentucky Derby.

And by now, almost everyone knows the Herald blew it.

Commentators around the world have hit the paper for falsely insinuating that jockey Jose Santos used an illegal instrument to drive his horse, Funny Cide, to victory in the Run for the Roses. "Miami Newspaper's Carelessness Tarnished Many Reputations," scolded a headline over a column in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Bad journalism led to controversy," reproached the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "The most severe indictment should be reserved for the Miami Herald, which instigated the whole mess in a frantic attempt to scoop the world," George Kimball wrote in the Irish Times.

More than 200 people fulminated about the screwup in letters to the editor. "Why didn't you have the brains of a bright 10-year-old?" questioned one. "You should be ashamed of yourselves," wrote another. "What's next? UFO sightings?" queried a third.

Even the Herald's legendary investigative editor, one of the architects of the famed Gary Hart scandal, Jim Savage, is apparently dissatisfied with his employer's response to what he calls "Photogate." Here's Savage's recent posting on the newspaper's internal electronic bulletin board, which is called "Read Me": "Before Funny Cide races into history at the Belmont Stakes, I think the Herald should publish a front-page apology to Jose Santos simply saying we were wrong. There should be no lingering suspicion about his ride in the Kentucky Derby and we are sorry for any damage to his reputation."

But the Herald has issued no front-page mea culpa. And though there has been some internal finger pointing, a couple of columns, and a lengthy story on the issue by top reporter Jay Weaver (buried deep in the sports section), the paper seems to have moved on. Even Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler, a friend and first-rate journalist, is in denial.

That's a shame, because the incident is telling. Both metaphorically and literally, it describes the decline of what was once the best-written, quirkiest, and most interesting newspaper in America -- at which, by the way, I spent six and a half years as a reporter. It should send a message to management about ways to improve and focus in a time of declining resources.

I've spoken to a dozen Herald reporters and editors over the past week to trace the discussions that led to the offending 839-word story by part-timer Frank Carlson and staffer Clark Spencer. And I've learned that the problems started when the two top editors -- Fiedler and Managing Editor Mark Seibel -- were out of town; continued with the (quite competent) person in charge, Assistant Managing Editor Judy Miller, attempting to make late-night decisions with incomplete information; and spiraled out of control because Carlson didn't admit his failure to understand Santos, whose native language is Spanish.

In other words: bad judgment. Bad management. The wrong hands on deck.

The story first came up for serious discussion at a 4 p.m. meeting on Friday, May 9. Carlson, a stringer for three years, believed that a photo taken by Getty Images photographer Jamie Squire during the race showed something in Santos' hand.

Miller and others pointed out that doctoring was possible. They asked for other shots taken after the allegedly incriminating one. Indeed, the additional 20 to 30 photos showed nothing. "When I left around 7:30 p.m.," Miller said, "I thought the story was dead."

Carlson e-mailed the snapshot to two race stewards. Both termed it suspicious and said they planned to meet with a lawyer to discuss strategy. When this was reported to Sports Editor Jorge Rojas, he called Miller on her cell phone. Miller told him the story should not run without an explanation from the jockey.

Carlson tracked down Santos -- or actually, the reporter contacted a publicist, who then caused the jockey to call the reporter. Santos, who speaks English with a heavy Chilean accent, contends that he simply told Carlson he was wearing a Q-Ray, a birthday bracelet that his wife, Rita, had given him two weeks before for arthritis. Yet Carlson heard not "Q-Ray for arthritis" but "cue ring to call the outriders." The call lasted less than a minute. Santos slammed down the phone after complaining about Carlson's "negative bullshit," according to the Herald's later account.

Sources say Carlson expressed no hesitation in describing the "cue ring" to his editors. The stringer alone did the interview, so no one could verify his version of events.

Carlson then called Rojas, who in turn telephoned Miller's cell phone a second time. Miller at that point said the story should not play on the front page. But, she added, they should try to find out what the "cue ring" was and whether such an instrument is legal.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse